We had three nights in San Francisco on our west coast road trip, arriving from our flight from Las Vegas just before lunch, giving us 2 and a half days to explore the city.
We stayed in a budget hotel in Chinatown, which was a great location to stay in and we could easily get around from here. San Francisco's Chinatown was the first Chinatown in North America and is the largest outside of Asia. The area is so brightly decorated, there’s so much to see and take in as you wander through the streets.
Having only 2 and half days here meant that we stayed quite central in San Francisco's downtown area, but there’s so much diversity to see in this area alone. Here’s my recommendations for what to see and do with a couple of days in this city:
Visit Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist hot spot in the city and it’s not hard to see why. The big draw at Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39 - which is now full of restaurants, ice cream and bakery stalls, and souvenir shops. There is also an arcade and interactive movie experience at the end of the pier. You can also book onto a whale watching cruise, or simply relax and watch the hoards of sea lions sunbathing on purpose built platoons.
Ghirardelli Square is another popular tourist destination in this area. The red brick building which was originally a chocolate factory now houses upscale dining and boutique shops. It also has landscaped gardens and views out to Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate bridge.
The area around Fisherman’s Wharf is a hive of activity, so after exploring, we treated ourselves to an ice cream from The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream takeaway and sat at the Aquatic Park with views out to Alcatraz.
Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf
Take a photo on the famous Lombard Street
Lombard street is one of the most iconic (and photographed) streets in San Francisco. In addition to the ‘crookedness’ of the street itself, it is also one of the most scenic, lined with large mansions and pretty gardens. Lombard street is close to Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown so is easily accessible, but be warned, it’s a steep walk up Lombard street to the top!
Tip: Despite being a tourist attraction, it is still a busy residential street, so avoid rush hour times. The street’s residents still need to get to and from work and get on with their daily lives, so visiting outside of commuter times and also avoiding holidays and weekends if you can is best.
Crowds of tourists at Lombard street
Take a ride on the cable car
San Francisco has the world’s last remaining manually-operated cable car system. The cable car now forms part of the tram system, but with it’s vintage style, it’s a more fun way to get from A to B! There are three different routes, two of which end at Fisherman’s wharf, and you can either buy a day or multi day pass as part of the Citypass, or just get a single ticket and enjoy the ride like we did!
Stroll along the Embarcadero
A walk along this palm-tree lined waterfront is perfect for a sunny afternoon. Start at Rincon Park, a small park with a large bow and arrow art installation and views out to the Bay bridge, and make your way along the waterfront to the Ferry Building. The historic Ferry Building was once the central transport hub of San Francisco. From 1898, when it opened, to the early 1930’s, catching a ferryboat was the only way commuters and travelers could get to and from San Francisco from the peninsula. The building was restored and in 2003 opened to the public, housing the Ferry Building Marketplace.
After stopping for a snack or edible souvenirs at the Marketplace, continue onto Pier 33 for tours to Alcatraz and then to Pier 39 to explore Fisherman's Wharf.
See the Golden Gate bridge
The Golden Gate bridge is one of the seven wonders of the modern world and reaches across San Francisco Bay for 1.7 miles, joining San Francisco and Marin.
Couple of fun facts - the bridge was opened in 1937 after 4 years of construction and 11 years of planning before that. Each tower supporting the bridge is 746 feet tall, and was once the tallest structure in San Francisco, before skyscrapers dominated the city skyline.
There are parking areas and viewpoints on both sides of the bridge, and you can travel across the bridge by vehicle, or by bike or on foot using the sidewalks.
We walked from Fisherman’s wharf along Marina Boulevard to Crissy Field beach and recreation area, where you get great views of the bridge.
Tip: The ‘Golden Gate Overlook’ by Marshalls beach on the other side of the bridge offers a different perspective of the bridge if you;re looking to capture that perfect photo.
The Golden Gate bridge from Crissy Field Beach
Golden Gate Hiking Trails
There are plenty of hiking trails in and around San Francisco, but if you’re short on time, as we were, then head to the Golden Gate Recreational Area or The Presidio.
There are hundreds of trails that criss cross this area, but the Coastal Trail in the Golden Gate recreational Area offers some of the best views and connects to the Sutro Baths Upper Trail and the Sutro Ruins Trail, where you’ll pass the ruins of the Sutro baths, a large historical bathhouse.
The Presidio is a former military base, which has been turned into a 1500 acre park, with areas of forest, walking trails, a golf course and beaches.
Union Square is where you’ll find all the high street chains and large department stores as well as fast food outlets, but if you’re after something more unique, head to The Mission District. Here, there is a rich arts and culture scene and you’ll find smaller, independent shops and galleries, alongside some fantastic places to eat.
Upper Fillmore is also a great place to spend a couple of hours browsing, with vintage and boutique stores alongside well known designer brands, whilst you’ll find stores for the home and accessories around Hayes Valley.
Alcatraz island is just 1.25 miles from the shore of San Francisco and is easily accessible by ferry, booked as part of a tour of the Island. All tickets have to be pre-booked in advance and it’s recommend to book early to secure a tour on the dates you are in town.
The prison on Alcatraz Island opened in 1934 and closed in 1963 and was the place where criminals were sent from other prisons due to ‘bad behaviour’. It’s said that no-one ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz, though 14 escape attempts were recorded.
The tour takes approximately two hours, including time to explore the gardens, grounds and exterior of the prison plus a 30 minute audio tour sharing some of the stories from the island.
Looking out to Alcatraz Island from the shore
Visit the different neighbourhoods
Each area of San Francisco has its own distinct feel, you could quite easily spend a day exploring and still not have scratched the surface. So I've written a separate post on what you can find in each neighbourhood.
For the full details of my 3 week Las Vegas to LA road trip, view my itinerary here
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